The effect of stress and exercise on the learning performance of horses

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Domestic horses are widely used for physically demanding activities but the effect of exercise on their learning abilities has not been explored. Horses are also frequently exposed to stressors that may affect their learning. Stress and exercise result in the release of glucocorticoids, noradrenaline and other neurotransmitters that can influence learning. It is not currently possible to directly measure concentrations of neurotransmitters in the brains of behaving horses, however the inference of neurobiological processes from peripheral markers have been widely used in studies of human cognition. We assigned 41 horses to either ridden exercise, uncontrollable stress or inactivity and evaluated their acquisition of an industry-style aversive instrumental learning task. Exercised horses achieved the learning criterion in the fewest number of trials compared to the stressed and inactive horses whose performance did not differ. The exercised horses’ salivary cortisol concentrations decreased during learning whereas the concentrations of the other groups increased. Spearman’s correlations revealed that horses with the highest cortisol concentrations required the most trials to reach the criterion. We present novel data that exercise prior to learning may enhance the acquisition of learning in horses. Conversely, activities that expose horses to uncontrollable stressors causing strong cortisol release may impair learning. It is proposed that these effects may be due to the influence of neurotransmitters such as cortisol and noradrenaline on brain regions responsible for learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1918
Number of pages13
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 04 Feb 2022


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